At the liturgy of Maundy Thursday we read the account of the Last Supper from John's Gospel. There we see Jesus very much in charge of his destiny. He is calm and collected. He is not sorrowful unto death, not depressed by his betrayal, and there is no hint that God has forsaken him.
The liturgical character of this Last Supper celebration is why the liturgy of Holy Thursday is so striking. What we do in our own liturgy is what Jesus has done. But St John's account of the Last Supper is a strange choice for this night when the institution of the Eucharist isn't mentioned at all. Instead we have the totally unexpected act of foot washing, a symbolic act with several meanings. Of course this passage is about humility, when the Son of God showed himself to be the servant of his disciples by washing their feet.
But the act of foot washing is also about Jesus's approach to his passion and death. Earlier in the Gospel, in his discourse about how he is the Good Shepherd, Jesus tells us:
I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
Putting this saying in the context of sheep and lambs, John links it to that great feast of lambs, the Passover. Which is where we are today, at the last Supper, a Passover meal. To prepare for the washing of the disciples' feet, Jesus laid aside his garments. John uses the same words for Jesus laying down his life and laying aside his garments. Then, after the ritual washing of feet, Jesus takes his garments up again in the same way that he can take up his life.
John, perhaps more than any other evangelist, is taken with the idea of the Gospel being a gospel of peace. This is evident in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. When he appears to the disciples in the upper room his first words are, Peace be with you. Eight days later he appears to them again and again greets them with the words, Peace be with you. The disciples recognise the resurrected Jesus because he brings peace. The Prophet Isaiah declares,
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings of good, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.'
In other words, blessed are the feet of those who go around preaching the good news of salvation, peace and the reign of God. Could the washing of the disciples' feet represent the commissioning of the disciples for their preaching mission?
So what does it mean for us to be washing one another's feet at the Maundy Thursday liturgy? We become part of Christ by baptism, by being born again, as Jesus tells Nicodemus at the beginning of John's Gospel. Baptism is our initiation. Now, at the end of the Gospel we are shown a second initiation. By a mini-baptism we are commissioned to go out and preach the good news, to go out and preach the Gospel.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings the gospel, who publishes peace and who broadcasts salvation.
So closely are baptism and preaching the Gospel linked that Jesus uses a similar image for both.
Being baptised is only the start. Unless we spread the good news of salvation, then we can have nothing to do with Jesus, as he tells Peter when he attempts to prevent the foot washing,
If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.
Baptism counts for little if we do not preach the good news. President Roosevelt once said that a Radical is a man with both feet planted firmly in the air! An inactive Christian is one who plants both feet firmly in the air instead of transforming them into beautiful feet that carry him or her to preach the Gospel.
So let us look on the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday as the renewal of our commissioning by the Lord to go out into the world and preach the good news of peace, salvation and the reign of God. This foot washing renews our commitment to the Gospel.